(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Israel will not give wanted Hamas activists "immunity" and free movement in the West Bank just because they are involved in an election campaign, a senior diplomatic official said Thursday, soon after Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Israel would not interfere in the upcoming PA elections even if Hamas participates.
"If a person is a terrorist, he remains a terrorist even if he is campaigning for an election," the official said. "We want the elections to be successful, but it is a bit much to expect that because there is an election, Israel will suddenly give freedom of movement to terrorists."
Mofaz, in what was widely interpreted as an about-face in Israeli policy, said that Israel would not interfere in the Palestinian elections.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said on a number of occasions over the last month that while Israel could not keep Hamas from participating in the elections in Gaza, it would not help the PA facilitate the elections in the West Bank - as it did last January during the elections for PA chairman - were Hamas to participate.
Mofaz, who met with Rice in Washington on Wednesday, made clear that Israel was not pleased with Hamas' participation in the political process and would not negotiate with Hamas representatives if they were elected to the Palestinian parliament.
"We will not interfere in the Palestinian election, but we don't believe that Hamas should be part of the Palestinian parliament. It is a Palestinian issue. But Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] said in the Sharm el-Sheikh summit that he will lead the Palestinian Authority to be one-authority, one-rule and one-gun. We want him to achieve these goals, and we will do our best to ease the lives of the Palestinians," Mofaz told reporters outside the State Department.
One senior official said that Mofaz's promise not to interfere in the elections needed to be defined. It did not mean, he said, that Israel would relax its pursuit of terrorists during the elections, or ease up on wanted Hamas activists because they may be involved in the campaign.
"If someone wanted from Hamas shows up at a checkpoint and says he has to get to a campaign meeting, its not very logical for people to think we will allow this, the official said.
A senior official in the Prime Minister's office said that Israel's fight against terror won't "be influenced by the election timetable."
The official explained that Mofaz's promise meant that Israel would not actively sabotage the elections, but at the same time, Israel would not assist the PA in carrying out the elections. In January, the IDF pulled back troops and lifted some roadblocks to enable movement to polling places - something not expected this time if Hamas were to be involved.
Nevertheless, the softening of Israel's position - as evidenced by Mofaz's comments - is widely believed to be tied to the international community's - including the US - unwillingness to demand that the PA bar Hamas from the upcoming elections.
US President George W. Bush did not make such a demand during his meeting in Washington last month Abbas, and Abbas has also not heard a similar demand from European leaders.
The EU's foreign ministers are scheduled to hold their monthly meeting on Monday, and while they are expected to issue a concluding statement calling on Hamas to disarm and recognize Israel's right to exist, Israeli officials believe this statement will stop short of specifically adopting Israel's explicit call for Hamas to be barred from the upcoming elections. Instead, the officials believe, the statement will more likely speak in general terms about terror and terrorism having no place in the democratic process.
Rice, according to Israeli sources, stressed in her meeting with Mofaz the need to strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and called on Israel to take steps that will ease the lives of Palestinians in the territories. She also highlighted the importance of resolving the Rafah crossing issue and providing a passage for Palestinians between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack added that among the issues that Israel is expected to deal with are the roadblocks and border crossings.
Mofaz replied positively to the American requests and said that Israel would act to improve the Palestinian economy. "We will do our best to ease the lives of the Palestinians," said the defense minister after the meeting.
According to Israeli sources, US officials did not call on Mofaz to stop Israeli action against Palestinian terrorists in Gaza or the West Bank.
Mofaz is on a three-day visit to Washington during which he has also met with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephan Hadley.
On Friday, Mofaz will meet with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. This will be the first time that Israeli and US defense chiefs have met since the resolution of the dispute over Israeli arms sales to China.
Though Mofaz and Rumsfeld have signed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding future arms sales from Israel to third countries, the relationship between the two defense establishments is not back to normal.
Israeli officials have pointed out in the past weeks that the US is still blocking several Israeli arms deals and that Israel has not been accepted back as a partner in the development of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the largest military aviation project currently underway.